Treat First-Time Foster Caregivers Like Trial Adopters & Other Lessons from the Pandemic

Listen to our interview with Dr. Lisa Gunter, the Maddie’s Fund Research Fellow at Arizona State University, about her new research into dog fostering during the pandemic, and how shelters can apply her findings to expand their foster programs and save more lives.

The audio from this piece was transcribed using an automated transcription service. Please excuse any typos or incorrect patterns of speech.

HASS: Hi, I’m Arin Greenwood, a writer with HASS. I’m so pleased to be speaking with Dr. Lisa Gunter, the Maddie’s Fund Research Fellow at Arizona State University, about her new research on fostering during the pandemic. Dr. Gunter just had a paper about this published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science. Dr. Gunter—thanks so much for speaking with me!

Lisa Gunter: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. 

HASS: So what got you interested in looking at fostering during the pandemic, specifically?

Lisa Gunter: For the past, now, over three and a half years, we’ve been working on Maddie’s nationwide fostering study. So if you’ve seen any of our work on field trips, or before that before this project, we also looked at sleepovers. But all of that led us to work, like I said, for the past three and a half years on the nationwide study. 

So within that study, since 2018, we helped shelters launch field trip programs, we helped 40 shelters, launch field trip programs, and then about a little over 20 shelters launched sleepover programs, in an effort to learn about them, and how they work. It was during our sleepovers and 2020 that you can kind of figure out what happened. 

And so our team was left kind of trying to figure out what to do next. And the pandemic really provided this amazing opportunity to look at fostering on a large scale across many different shelters. And then also kind of more specifically, kind of this idea of fostering during a crisis—and, and yeah, so that’s kind of what led us to explore it was kind of necessity was the mother of invention. We had a whole team assembled. That was studying fostering so really, we were just at, you know, right time, right moment, right time. So.

HASS: What were you looking at specifically? You had a whole bunch of sort of, I mean, it was your papers really, really interesting. And it just went through sort of everything. I mean, you’re looking at, you know, fostering different kinds of shelters fostering new foster is versus not new, fosters puppies versus not puppies. And we’ve got to talk about the puppies at some point because I was really surprised by this statistic that only 7% of the puppies got adopted out of foster.

Lisa Gunter: But have you talked to puppy fosters?

HASS: I guess it’s a good way to convince people not to talk, but how did you sort of pick the categories of things that you were looking at? And then what were you, what were you hoping to learn? And how were you hoping it would be applied?

Lisa Gunter: Sure. Um, well, I think like on a sort of big picture, we, you know, I think everyone was digesting the news at a prior, probably higher rate than usual during that time. And there were just so many media reports of how inundated shelters were with requests for adoption and interest in fostering. And so I think that this, again, is just this wonderful opportunity we have with science, where it’s like, hey, there’s this potential phenomenon going on? Can we learn about it? So. And it was just so unique. I mean, we’ve never been through anything like this before. So that was sort of our interest. 

But in terms of, you know, what led us to sort of the lines of questioning that we did in the paper, I think we have a team of folks that have worked in animal shelters. And that really guides our sort of questions about how this system works, how fostering works, and what is, you know, and takeaways that are very applicable to folks working in sheltering. I think that’s always sort of, there’s our sort of interest and curiosity on the science side, and then there’s making sure that our curiosities can lead to improving lives for dogs and animal shelters.

HASS: So, yeah, I want to get right to that stuff. Because I feel like it’s so important. What are the big takeaways for shelters, so we can get into the stuff that’s just like really interesting that you found, but what are the big sort of if shelters learn anything from this research, you’d want it to be? Sure.

Lisa Gunter: I know. And I think that you know, perhaps we did a bit of a disservice being like, oh, this is about fostering during the pandemic, because I think there are so many takeaways that I hope folks reading our paper we’ll put to use I think the biggest one that we found is the really the success of foster to adopt programs. And you know, we’ve already kind of looked at them from this physiological side. I mean, that’s really what sleepovers are right? If we’re trying them out for a night or two how’s that any different than you know, a foster to adopt it might be a little foster-adopt might be a bit longer and we showed that they were longer, but this idea of dogs temporarily going into homes, the dogs don’t know, if they’re being adopted, whether it’s like a sleepover or week-long fostering, you know, they don’t know. 

So I think from a physiological perspective about trying to understand their, their like immediate welfare, we identify that those programs were helpful for the dogs. But then to see that so many of the dogs in these foster to adopt programs end up converting to adoptions. It was I think that that was really interesting to find. 

And then I think related to that, how often first-time foster caregivers were adopting their dogs and how and also to how that was modulated by whether or not they already had a dog. But I think that that was really interesting, because when we think about the ways in which folks contact our shelters, you know, there are there is somebody that’s like really clear, they’re ready to adopt, but then they kind of just need a bit of time to figure out if it’s the right dog for them. But then maybe our first-time foster caregivers really aren’t that different from them than that. But they’ve just come through a different mechanism. And they and so I think that that’s pretty interesting because we can kind of take a look at the finite resources we have in sheltering and say, hey, you know, maybe those first-time foster caregivers, we don’t put all those resources into training, and we treat them more like a foster to adopt. And if they don’t adopt, then totally fine. We’ll put them through training. But likely, these two groups that I think we’ve typically treated sort of differently, are actually probably more similar than we previously thought.

HASS: Yeah, it seems like one of one of the big things that I took away from reading the paper was that well, was that you’re a real big fan? I am, too. This is how we got our dog actually, a foster to adopt program or trial adoption program. And that, that it seems like it’s a good idea for shelters to expand those. And let first time, let first-time foster’s approach fostering as a trial adoption instead of sort of putting them through all of the training and all of that as fosters. And so are you encouraging shelters to do more trial adoptions to be more foster to adopt?

Lisa Gunter: Yeah, I mean, I think I think our findings from this paper seem to suggest that they are both like, you know when we think about the dogs immediate welfare, I think consistently, we’ve found that when dogs go into homes and spend time, we’re working on a new paper about week-long fostering, and we found the same thing that when they go into homes, their cortisol declines. And so I think, you know, these different programs that we found, whether it’s a couple of nights, whether it’s a week, it positively impacts their like immediate welfare.

But in this study, you know, really, it was more of you know, there were more natural observations that the shelters were getting on with getting animals into foster care. And we were kind of just there to sort of, in some ways, just be flies on the wall, help them collect data, and then take a look at what they were doing. So I think that the fact that we have evidence of the success of these programs is only because the shelters, were kind of brave enough and progressive enough to say, let’s give them a try. So that’s pretty awesome.

HASS: Yeah. How successful were they? I mean, you had a lot of data and figures in the paper. I know there’s so much on math person, I was just kind of like, wow, these are a lot of numbers, a very important number. Can you give some sense of just how successful these programs for

Lisa Gunter: Sure. So with regards to the foster to adopt programs, in about three quarters, about three-quarters of the of those experiences, the dogs were adopted. So that’s pretty fantastic. And then we found with the first-time foster caregivers, they were about four times more likely to adopt their dog than what we call, someone that had a previous relationship with the shelter. Now that previous relationship could be either fostered before. I’m a volunteer, I’m a staff member. I might have even been a first-time foster caregiver during the pandemic, but I came back to do it again. And so the fact that those folks that are first-timers, it’s just a quite a bit of a different experience. So, yeah, so that that was that those were some findings there. 

I’m thinking about other things that were sort of pretty interesting that we found as a behaviorist, of course, I’m very interested in behavior, I think our entire team is. And so I think one of the findings that we had about dogs that had some sort of identified additional behavioral need, and having those dogs come back from foster care about three times more often for behavioral issues than dogs that didn’t have additional needs that were identified prior to foster. I think that that was a pretty interesting find because I think it really does support the fact that adopters probably, as you know, foster caregivers, yes, but adopters, as well, of dogs that have identified additional behavioral needs, they need probably more support than then they’re receiving doesn’t mean that every, you know, what we’re calling for is like, oh, my gosh, everybody needs comprehensive support, you know, going into foster care after or after adoption. 

But I think that it would seem to suggest that when the shelter has identified that this dog may have an issue with people like strangers, or maybe issues with other dogs, those types of issues, probably put them more at risk of being returned for similar issues versus dogs that went out to foster care. And that wasn’t something that the shelter had noticed. 

So again, I kind of always even think of situations like this man, what an opportunity that we can, we can take our limited resources with regards to kind of post-placement support, and maybe that’s what we need to think about it, maybe it’s not necessarily adoption follow up. But it’s more about placement support, and really putting, again, the limited resources we have into animals that really need that support, so they can be successful. And that doesn’t mean that support is going to make, you know, for example, in these fostering situations, it doesn’t mean that there’s going to be no returns now of dogs that have additional behavioral needs. But you know, it would be really interesting to see what happens when we do help those folks extra and see if those dogs are more successful.

HASS: Yeah. Oh, boy, I’ve got so many questions for you, stemming out of this, including, I mean, this, this seems like a really interesting intersection with all the work being done on looking at sort of dog behavior in shelters versus not in shelters, and how you even evaluate dog behavior in shelters and what you can predict about their behavior out of a shelter. I mean, this seems like it’d be a very rich topic to to examine a lot more.

Lisa Gunter: Speaking to the choir, yeah.

HASS: So one of the things that I was really interested in here, and in a whole paper that’s really fascinating that I would encourage everybody to read in full. But one of the things I was really interested in is where you identify some of the things that might make it difficult for people to foster and how shelters can make it easier to foster. 

So you have this statistic, I can’t remember the exact number, but it was some fairly large percentage of people who only fostered once, which, which indicates either I guess that that that one time they adopted a dog and decided we have room for one dog in our house, or else indicated, you know, this isn’t for us at this point in our lives. 

And, you know, I’m just curious what you make of the fact that there were so many people who only fostered once and that fostering declined after the first two months of the pandemic, and, you know, what you would encourage shelters to do to make fostering something that people will do more than once?

Lisa Gunter: Yeah, I mean, I think that has helped so many shelters, launch, fostering programs, right of different flavors, whether it’s field trips, whether it’s sleepovers or collecting this data. We’ve also recently wrapped up a study on safety net fostering so that’s the last time

HASS: You see this too. I love safety net fostering.

Lisa Gunter: So, um, so I think we’ve been, you know, you know, thanks to Maddie’s, we’ve been able to really dive into these questions about fostering. And I think, you know, the sort of big thing that I think our team is always sort of looking at is how can we better support foster caregivers? And I think that you know, it’s a challenge from the sheltering perspective, especially as they grow their programs, and they have many animals out into foster care, is how do we make sure that they’re receiving consistent contact, and making sure that their needs are being met, both the caregivers needs the animals needs, and that they’re, you know, still freely participating and that they, they’re having a good time doing it. 

So that’s, again, to where I think that you know, we often, through training shelters, we’ve often chatted about kind of these different durations of foster care, whether it’s a just a field trip, or a couple of hours, a sleepover for a couple of nights, or week long fostering—or like this in the pandemic, and how like, we really need folks to kind of, we need to allow them to kind of step in, at whatever point they’re kind of comfortable with. And if they’re like, Hey, I’m not ready for a dog in my house yet. But I would love to take a dog from the shelter on a field trip, you know, we’ve got to have dogs really that that are able to go out with folks that maybe just walk right into the shelter and say, Hey, I really want to help a dog today, is there anybody that I could take out for a couple of hours outing. 

And I think that that’s important, it’s important for dogs that are that wonderful that they get to meet so many folks in the community. But I also think that you know, it’s important that, that the shelter be able to interact with their community in that way. Because I think, you know, all these different sort of contact points that we have with our community helps us be a better resource and really be seen as a resource in our community, that it’s not just a place where lost dogs are more, you know, just a place for adoption. But it’s, it’s a lot more than that. 

So that that’s what I sort of think about when I think about what, what can shelters do with this sort of, with this sort of information is I think we’ve got to meet people where they’re at, and, you know, kind of help them be a part of the shelter story and animal stories. But at the same time, once they have those animals, we really want to make sure that they have all the support they need regularly checking in. And also making sure that you know, we check in with them that they still want to keep on doing it. And not necessarily waiting for them to tap out and say I’ve had enough, but in you know, and we found that the majority of dogs that were fostered for this study, many of them were returned simply because they were being adopted. 

So I think that there weren’t we didn’t have, you know, a large proportion that were returned, because the caregiver had an issue or the dog had an issue. The vast majority were coming back because they were going to their home. So I think that that that does say something, but I do think that probably though those animals that have a bit bit more than average needs probably need a little bit more support.

HASS: And what kind of support are you thinking of?

Lisa Gunter: Yeah, well, I think about those dogs that, you know, like I said, had some sort of identified behavioral need. And then you know, we’re returned for something sort of behavior related, we kept it pretty open. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be the exact same problem. 

But I think one of the biggest things is just checking in, and also making sure that they’re kind of, you know, prepared for what, you know, for example, a dog that may be talkative to other dogs on leash, what that’s like to live with, and making sure that, that they’re prepared that they have a plan. Maybe this does mean for dogs, again, this wasn’t a big chunk of the dogs in our study. But maybe that means we provide a bit more one on one support, because, you know, as someone who’s, you know, worked with owners, you know, post-adoption, and had clients and things like that, I think, you know, just simply kind of how they arrange their house and their routine can go a long way. And maybe that’s something we can do via Zoom, maybe that’s something we can do in person. 

But I think a little bit of help can probably go a long way to helping the, you know, folks feel less overwhelmed and the animals more successful. But yeah, I think that’s something in our, in our safety net study, one of the things that we tried out was this idea of giving folks the opportunity to opt-out. So instead of like I said, waiting for them to kind of tap out and be like I’ve had enough, we periodically check in with them and say not like how are things going, but do you want to keep on doing this? Because I think that that’s a little bit different of a phrasing. But think about how then when the person says yeah, I think maybe I’ve had enough, you know, it’s a little bit easier to say than being like, you know, kind of the jerk that says they have to bring the dog back. 

And I think that it’s a little bit of a subtle difference, but I don’t know when we think about how much foster caregivers are vibe for the shelter and for the animals, right? The animals get to be in a home, which I think a lot of our research has shown that it’s probably less stressful than the shelter. But then from the shelters’ perspective, I mean, every dog we have out in foster care is, you know, additional space in the shelter. But it’s also, you know, saving the shelter money that they’re not having to spend on animal care, right. 

And so when we think about that, we have to think about, wait, how can we sort of compensate these foster caregivers? And it’s not necessarily, I mean, maybe monetary payment is one way maybe, but maybe simply giving them choice and control about how long they’re doing it. And if they want to keep on doing it can be some way that we can kind of acknowledge their contribution to the welfare of the animal?

HASS: Yeah, I think that all makes a lot of sense. And it, so one of the things that you were looking at, in this paper is sort of how shelters with different kinds of resources were fostering, and then we’re also achieving live outcomes. So I’m curious what you think. So let’s say it’s an under-resourced shelter that’s trying to get more pets into foster, do you think? Do you think they’re, you know, you noted in the paper that, you know, for the under-resourced shelters, a lot of them saved lives by transferring the pets into more resource shelters? 

Do you think that’s sort of how you see fostering going for the shelter’s to that if they just don’t have the capacity to build, you know, a several people strong foster team with, you know, lots of behavioral support, and they’re just in a situation of constantly putting out fires? Do you think, do you think the most realistic sort of path for them is to transfer the more challenging dogs to other shelters, which have more resources in place to support their fosters?

Lisa Gunter: Yeah, I think you’ve totally hit on it. Arin, I think that you know, I think one of the things that’s always sort of interest, our research team, is that there are great ideas out there, right, there are great ideas about how we can improve sheltering, but it might not necessarily work for every shelter. Right. 

And, and I think that this, you know, this sort of data, like kind of how we see a differentiation between those that are lower resourced, versus those that have more resources. I think it’s sort of acknowledging what what what are you good at? What do you want to get good at, and, and if you know, a shelter, because at the end of the day, those are live outcomes, and they weren’t that different, it was just how they solved, the sort of puzzle was different. 

And so I think if we look at that, I think we can say for some shelters, probably the best way is just to get them out as quickly as possible to a better resource shelter, until they’re probably more resource that they can have the staff to probably be able to administer a fostering program, and probably other programs, right, that increase the visibility of their animals so that folks come in, and are anticipating finding a dog that they could adopt. 

So I think that I think, you know, I think, you know, the big takeaway, no matter any, I mean, throughout this, throughout this entire sort of study that we’ve been working on, for the past three and a half years, we’ve helped launch or collect data on 100 different programs across the country. And I think through that, you can sort of appreciate that, you know, we work with every shelter, kind of where they’re at, and what they’re capable of. 

And I think in this case, some shelters, they might feel that like, given the resources, the best ways, let’s just get them out as soon as possible to partners that may be able to support them better after adoption, helps, you know, get them into foster care and support their foster caregivers. And also probably have right resources post-adoption. So that, you know, owners aren’t just again, coming into adopt, but maybe they’re coming in for routine vaccines, dog training, or other resources that are related to their pet.

HASS: Yeah. But that really speaks to the need for I mean, this is a whole other conversation, it really speaks to the need for better funding for low resource shelters, and, and also just a more holistic and coordinated transfer sort of system in this country.

Lisa Gunter: Absolutely. I mean, I think a lot of what you know, seeing the different outcomes of shelters that participate in this study across the country where we weren’t just working in one region, is that I think, you know, we can all be successful. And by success, I mean, helping animals leave the shelter alive. 

But a lot of this, I think, is a supply and demand issue that there are some areas that have way more pets than others. And you know, I think we, you know, again, kind of have to use technology to our advantage to be able to connect those shelters that have, you know, a lot of inventory with those that don’t, you know, especially as the shelters that maybe have a lot of, because when we looked at that sort of resource, the resource level the shelter, that was very raw, it was simply looking at how many animals do you serve? Did you serve in the previous year? And what is your budget for the year, and we acknowledge that that is a very rough and ready number, that it could you know, if the shelters doing more outreach, doing a lot of things that actually aren’t about animals in their shelter, that that might not be representative, but it does give us some sort of idea that, you know, if a shelter is lower resourced, and they just can’t spend that money per animal, you know, let’s get them out. 

And then hopefully, there will come a time that they will have more, you know, money per animal to be able then to have staff that can kind of work in these ways that accomplish placement at their own facility versus, you know, sending, you know, a transfer transferring the pets out to a shelter that might be able to have better placement options for them.

HASS: Yeah, it seems like there’s room for volunteer integration there, too, if you can get some good volunteers into to help out with a lot of this stuff.

Lisa Gunter: Absolutely. I think there’s so many fantastic. I mean, one of the things that I read recently that I’ve loved is volunteer programs to help with identifying lost pets and connecting lost pets with their owners. I think that’s fantastic. 

And I think like, I’m such, I like love, like, you know, digging around on the internet, obviously, it’s like, I’m a professional sort of, you know, digger around her. And so, you know, this idea of like, how fun would that be? 

And I don’t know, I, I think I connect with it as well, because I’ve been involved in sheltering for a long time and was at a shelter during Hurricane Katrina. And, you know, we made a connection between a dog that I was working with and its owner that we hadn’t been able to find. And that just feels like something pretty special. That I think that you know, again, folks want to be, I don’t know, I think all of us want are trying to make a difference. 

And so I think any way that we can kind of integrate volunteers that they’re supported, I think, is a really big thing. And as long as they’re supported, and, you know, I think that there’s a lot that folks can do to improve the services of the shelter.

HASS: That yeah, um, so I mean, I’m keeping you way too long here. But let me ask you a couple more little questions. You found that pets who were in fostering during the pandemic, during the early part of the pandemic had a 93% live release rate, which is, which is just fantastic. But just to put it in perspective, how would that compare to PetSmart? And foster? And do you think that this would apply, even not during the pandemic? Did the lessons share the observations and lessons during the pandemic, do you think? Are they applicable outside of the pandemic?

Lisa Gunter: Yeah, well, I know you, I appreciate you sending the questions ahead of time because I, I took a look because I was thinking about Gary Patronek, and Abbi Crowe’s paper, but they looked at fostering at Pima Animal Care and Control, you know, some data from several years ago. But those animals that were participating in foster care, were also having really high live release rates even higher than what we found. I think that you know, again, there weren’t very many animals that were going through that program at that time, their program is so incredibly robust now. 

But I think that that gives us some insight, that perhaps whether it’s the pandemic, or not, that, that placing animals in foster care likely leads to better outcomes for the animals, which is pretty fantastic, you know, or at least maybe not better. I mean, I think we, I think that they also found in comparison, that the animals had better outcomes when they were in foster care, compared to in the shelter. 

And to me, just unlike the sort of face validity of that, that sort of makes sense that, you know, I think my time is sheltering, I think one of the big one, one of the big takeaways is, you know, it really makes a difference for the animals when they have an advocate. When they have someone that not only is you know, caring for them, that’s, that’s amazing. And that in of itself, you know, is incredible, but then also networking them and try, you know, you know, thinking about what they need and connecting them with somebody that’s looking for that impact companionship, I think that I think it just you know, there’s so much that can be said it for, for, you know, somebody’s really stepping up for an animal and helping them leave the shelter. 

And so I think any time we can get folks involved and involved in the story of an animal and like helping them be successful and leave the shelter and find a home, I think the animals are better for it. I think, you know, I think sheltering for a long time really tried to do it all itself. And I think that there is just sort of power and magic and helping and having the community be a part of these animal stories.

HASS: I think this is a great place to leave this even though I could ask you questions all day, I really appreciate you speaking with me, thank you for doing all of this great work to help pets and shelters I know they’re better off for it, and we’re better off for it. Thank you.

Lisa Gunter: Thanks Arin! 

HASS: Talk to you soon!

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